Positive signs from Burma, but the US remains cautious Skip to main content

Positive signs from Burma, but the US remains cautious

Positive signs from Burma, but the US remains cautious

US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell speaks to The Natoin's editor-in-chief Suthichai Yoon about political reform in Burma. This is the concluding part of a two part interview that began yesterday.


Suthichai Yoon: There is some positive news from your envoy on Burma. Perhaps you can confirm rumours and speculation. Why aren't you in Burma on this visit?

Assistant Secretary Campbell: Well, Burma was looking for consultation with its Chinese friends in Beijing [on October 11]. We had a very good meeting with Burma's foreign minister in New York and subsequently in Washington.

SY: Was that the first time for the Burmese foreign minister to be in the State Department building? What was significant?

ASC: We've indicated that there is clearly a change effort inside the country. We've been pleased by the outreach from the new president to Aung San Suu Kyi. She herself has expressed satisfaction with the dialogue she's had. We see some steps - the decision on the [Myitsone] dam, some diplomacies domestically, some assurances on how they propose to interact with North Korea. These are important steps. What we are looking for are irreversible signs that they are heading constructively in the right direction. I think we are encouraged in the initial phase but it's still too early to make fundamental judgments, and we are looking for them to do more, particularly when it comes to the release of political prisoners. But it is undeniable that there are changes happening inside the country. It is incumbent on us to explore and to be very clear that we will match their changes, if they can be sustained, with legitimate steps of our own.

SY: The Burmese foreign minister might have told you what conditions they need before they can release political prisoners. You must know the time frame and the conditions they think they need before they can do that. Are you ready to meet their requirement?

ASC: I don't want to portray the nature of diplomacy of this kind, but we had a different kind of discussion. We laid out clearly our hopes and expectations, and I think those are heard clearly and constructively, and we talked about the prospects for going forward. I think there is clear understanding in Naypyidaw of what is necessary. There may be disagreements on those who are classified as political prisoners. We welcome a comprehensive conversation with them about how people are categorised, who we think are political prisoners. But the dialogue I've had with them over the course of the last couple of months has no resemblance to the dialogue we had two years ago when we first started. It's fundamentally different. I would say it is the outset of what we try to institutionalise - a different approach to diplomacy, which is among the most difficult I've ever engaged in. I've had dialogue with the North Koreans. I've had difficult discussions with various militaries around Asia, but nothing as difficult and unproductive as some of the discussions with Naypyidaw. But that has changed fundamentally. There is a new desire to engage. I hope very much that they are sincere and they are able to take our relationship to a new stage, but I have to underscore that we have seen steps like these in the past only to be disappointed by dramatic reversal.

SY: What would come first, the release of political prisoners or the lifting of sanctions?

ASC: I would suggest there isn't that sort of linkage. Any process of easing of our sanctions will take a substantial period of time. This involves not just the executive branch, but a substantial effort by the legislative branch of the US. It takes substantial consultation and very clear signs of progress. We do not know the process yet. I think the government will need to demonstrate a very clear determination to move forward. I think an appropriate next step will be the release of political prisoners.

SY: That will be the most important condition?

ASC: I think it is laid out clearly, the thing we are looking for is progress with the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi, and domestic diplomacy with ethnic minority groups, many of whom are subject to terrible violence and abuse. We would like to see a clear determination to avoid interaction with North Korea that is inconsistent or in violation of the UN Security Council Resolution. Obviously, the release of political prisoners and also steps to address people's needs in terms of healthcare, food and clothing. There are issues we would like to see progress on, and we have seen some hints, and we hope they will build up in time.

SY: Will you talk to China about Burma too? Are there some signs of change in China's attitude over Burma issues.

ASC: I think China wants to avoid circumstances where Burma is isolated. I think the isolation is not a strategic interest. At the same time, I think they're worried about conflict inside the country and its potential to spill over into Thailand or even into China, which clearly is not in their interest. We have encouraged them to be helpful and we think that they have had communication with the new government. Clearly there is an overlap in our mutual interests. We have deep discussions with all of our Asean partners - Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia all have key relationships of a different kind, but key relationships, with Burma. Obviously India and the countries in Northeast Asia and Europe also have a critical role to play in the developments on the ground in the country.

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